Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 54.

Among the Trees.

When the old woman had raised the window, “Thanks,” said Mr. Longcluse, almost in a whisper. “There are people, Lady May Penrose told me this morning, threatening to interrupt the funeral to-night. Of course you know — you must know.”

“I have heard o’ some such matter, but ’tis nout to no one here. We don’t care a snap for them, and if they try any sich lids, by my sang, we’ll fit them. And I think, Sir, if ye’ve any thing o’ consequence to tell to the family, ye’ll not mind my saying ‘twould be better ye sud go, like ither folk, to the hall-door, and leave your message there.”

“Your reproof would be better deserved, Mrs. Tansey,” he answers good-humouredly, “if there had not been a difficulty. Mr. Richard Arden is not on pleasant terms with me, and my business will not afford to wait. I understand that Miss Arden has suffered much anxiety. It is entirely on her account that I have interested myself so much in it; and I don’t see, Mrs. Tansey, why you and I should not be better friends,” he adds, extending his long slender hand gently towards her.

She does not take it, but makes a stiff little curtsey instead, and draws back about six inches.

Perhaps Mr. Longcluse had meditated making her a present, but her severe looks daunted him, and he thought that he might as well be a little better acquainted before he made that venture. He went on —

“You have spoken very wisely, Mrs. Tansey; I am sure if these people do as they threaten, it will be contrary to law, and so, as you say, you may snap your fingers at them at last. But in the meantime they may enter the house and seize the coffin, or possibly cause some disgraceful interruption on the way. Lady May tells me that Miss Alice has suffered a great deal in consequence. Will you tell her to set her mind at ease? Pray assure her that I have seen the people, that I have threatened them into submission, that I am confident no such attempt will be made, and that should the slightest annoyance be attempted, Crozier has only to present the notice enclosed in this to the person offering it, and it will instantly be discontinued. I have done all this entirely on her account, and pray lose no time in quieting her alarms. I am sure, Mrs. Tansey, you and I shall be better friends some day.”

Mrs. Tansey curtseyed again.

“Pray take this note.”

She took it.

“Give it to Crozier; and pray tell Miss Alice Arden, immediately, that she need have no fears. Good-night.”

And pale Mr. Longcluse, with his smile and his dismally dark gaze, and the strange suggestion of something undefined in look or tone, or air, that gradually overcame her more and more till she almost felt faint, as he smiled and murmured at the open window, in the moonlight, was gone. Then she stood with the note in her thin fingers, without moving, and called to Crozier with a shrill and earnest summons as one who has just had a frightful dream will call up a sleeper in the same room.

Mr. Longcluse walks boldly and listlessly through this forbidden ground. He does not care who may meet him. Near the house, indeed, he would not like an encounter with Sir Richard Arden, because he knows that his being involved in a quarrel at such a moment, so near, especially with her brother, would not subserve his interests with Alice Arden.

For hours he strode or loitered alone through the solitary woodlands. The moonlight was beautiful; the old trees stand mournful and black against the luminous sky; there is for him a fascination in the solitude, as his noiseless steps lead him alternately into the black shadow cast on the sward by the towering foliage, and into the clear moonlight, on dewy grass that shows grey in that cold brightness. He was in the excitement of hope and suspense. Things had looked very black, but a door had opened and light came out. Was it a dream?

He leans with folded arms against the trunk of one of the trees that stand there, and from the slight elevation of the ground he can see the avenue under the boughs of the trees that flank it, and the chimneys of Mortlake Hall through the summits of the opening clumps. How melancholy and still the whole scene looks under that light!

“When I succeed to all this, who will be mistress of it?” he says, with his strange smile, looking toward the summits of the chimneys, that indicate the site of the Hall. “No one knows who I am; who can tell my history? What about that opera-girl? What about my money? — money is alway exaggerated. How many humbugs! how many collapses! stealing into society by evasions, on false pretences, in disguise! The man in the mask, ha! ha! Really perhaps two masks; not a bad fluke, that. The villain! You would not take a thousand pounds and know me — that is speaking boldly. A thousand pounds is still something in your book. You would not take it. The time will come, perhaps, when you’d give a thousand —ten thousand, if you had them — that I were your friend. Slanderous villain! To think of his talking so of me! The man in the mask trying to excite suspicion. My two masks are broken, and I all the better. By —! you shall meet me yet without a mask. Alice! will you be my idol? There is no neutrality with one like me in such a case. If I don’t worship, I must break the image. What a speck we stand on between the illimitable — the eternal past and the eternal future — always looking for a present that shall be something tangible; always finding it a mathematical point, cujus nulla est pars— the mere stand-point of a retrospect and a conjecture. Ha! There are the wheels: there goes the funeral!”

He holds his breath, and watches. How interesting is everything connected with Alice! Slowly it passes along. Through one opening made by the havoc of a storm in the line of trees that form the avenue, he sees it plainly enough. A very scanty procession — the plumed hearse and three carriages, and a few persons walking beside. It passes. The great iron gate shrieks its long and dolorous note as it opened, and Longcluse heard it clang after the last carriage had passed, and with this farewell the old gate sent forth the dead master of Mortlake.

“Farewell to Mortlake,” murmured Longcluse, as he heard these sounds, with a shrug and his peculiar smile; “farewell, the lights, the claret-jug, the whist, and all the rest. You ‘fear neither justices nor bailiffs,’ as the song says, any longer. Very easy about your interest and your premiums; very careless who arrests you in your leaden vesture; and having paid, if nothing else, at least your beloved son’s post obit. Courage, Sir Reginald! your earthly troubles are over. Here am I, erect as this tree, and as like to live my term out, with all that money, and no will made, and yet as tired as ever you were, and very willing, if the transaction were feasible, to die, and be bothered no more, instead of you.”

He sighs, and looks toward the house, and sighs again.

“Does she relent? Was it not she who told Lady May to ask this service of me? If I could only be sure of that, I should stand here, this moment, the proudest man in England. I think I know myself — a very simple character; just two principles — love and malice; for the rest, unscrupulous. Mere cruelty gives me no pleasure: well for some people it don’t. Revenge does make me happy: well for some people if it didn’t. Except for those I love or those I hate, I live for none. The rest live for me. I owe them no more than I do this rotten stick. Let them rot and fatten my land; let them burn and bake my bread.”

With these words he kicked the fragments of a decayed branch that lay at his foot, and glided over the short grass, like a ghost, toward the gate.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49